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Writing rules? Really?


I stumbled across this post on io9, via SF Signal, and I can’t decide if it’s typical of their cluelessness or whether the site deliberately caters to clueless people. To be fair, they have carefully quoted the word “rules” because the ten points they make are a combination of wrongness, bad advice and the opposite of common sense.

io9’s 10 writing “Rules” they wish more science fiction and fantasy authors would break…

1) No third-person omniscient
As far as I’m aware, readers prefer third-person limited PoV, so publishers prefer it, so writers use it more. Omniscient is no longer as popular in genre fiction as it once was, though you will see it used in thrillers or literary fiction, with varying degrees of success. Given genre’s current trend for immersion, omniscient voice would be counter-indicated.

2) No prologues
I’ve been saying this for years. Wannabe writers write prologues because their favourite books – no matter how old – feature prologues. And even then, those books probably didn’t need them.

3) Avoid infodumps
According to Kim Stanley Robinson, info-dumping is just another narrative technique – and one he uses interestingly in 2312 with its Dos Passos-like “Quantum Walks”. Anything which interrupts the flow of the narrative should generally be avoided, and that includes exposition. There are ways of getting important information across to the reader – some of them are more elegant than others. In Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I used a glossary – and used that glossary to tell the story of the Apollo programme. In The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, the glossary serves triple duty – telling the story of the Apollo and Ares programmes, but also offering clues to the real story of the novella and hiding the coda.

4) Fantasy novels have to be series instead of standalones
At present, publishers in the UK like trilogies. You probably stand a better chance of getting a contract if you’ve written a trilogy rather than a stand-alone novel. There’s no reason why fantasy novels (of the epic mediaevalish secondary world variety) shouldn’t be stand-alones, and many have been – such as, er, um… well, I’m sure there must be one somewhere.

5) No portal fantasy
Isn’t portal fantasy a bit out of fashion these days? Most epic fantasies are secondary world fantasies.

6) No FTL
So that would be like Alastair Reynolds’ entire oeuvre, then? Books set outside the Solar System but without FTL have been around for a long time. An especially good one is William Barton’s Dark Sky Legion from 1992. It’s a damn sight more interesting an approach than pretending spaceships are ocean liners and interstellar space is just a very large ocean…

7) Women can’t write “hard” science fiction
Argh. This isn’t a rule, even if in quotes. This is just rank ignorance. And to the people in the comment thread of the io9 post asking for the names of women hard sf writers… Well, there’s this thing called the internet, it has search engines you can use, so go and bloody look for yourself. Admitting you’re ignorant is only the first step. Now you have to do something about it. Don’t go demanding people give you a list of authors’ names. Go and look for yourself. It’s not difficult.

8) Magic has to be just a minor part of a fantasy world
Random assertion is random.

9) No present tense
That’s me screwed then – the Apollo Quartet and Wunderwaffe are all written in the present tense. I like it, I like its immediacy. And I’ve read some excellent books written in the present tense – such as Katie Ward’s Girl Reading.

10) No “unsympathetic” characters
The problem with unsympathetic characters is that they’re, well, unsympathetic. And if you do find yourself sympathising with them, then you probably need help. Writing unsympathetic characters – especially in epic fantasy – means you end up with rapey grimdark shit, and that’s something the genre really needs to grow out of. It’s not big and it’s not clever.

So there you have it. Within a subset of genre fiction, all novels apparently do not break these “rules” – though obviously of course lots of other genre novels do. But to point that out would have rendered io9’s entire article meaningless.

19 thoughts on “Writing rules? Really?

  1. If I think of the best fantasy novels of the last decade, books by people like Kit Whitfield, Fracnes Hardinge and Graham Joyce, they are all standalones.

    • Yes, well, I did qualify it as “epic mediaevalish secondary world” because the reference to portal fantasy implied that meaning in the io9 post. But yes, non-epic type fantasy is often stand-alone.

  2. I think writers love to read about “rules”. We can sit back and decide which ones we agree with and choose to follow, or which ones to pretentiously disagree with.

    I like this quote:

    “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
    -W. Somerset Maugham

  3. I’m not quite sure what you’re saying here Ian.

    That plenty of genre writers already break these rules? Or that you think these “rules” are generally followed and that that’s a good thing?

    • That they’re not actually rules… for the reasons given.

      • Certain people state that hard and fast ‘rules’ exist as if they always have when this simply isn’t the case. Instead there are historical trends towards and then away from certain techniques and the ‘rules’ of the time tend to reflect this. Third person omni was common with Victorian writing so there was probably a perceived ‘rule’ back then that it was required, whereas modernist literary writing moved away from the technique and so the opposite ‘rule’ seemed to come into force. Unless you’re talking YA fiction where it’s still very popular. And of course it’s apparently making (another) comeback in the lit-fic world…

        I suspect that the choice of the word ‘rule’ itself probably isn’t very useful. However, I would caveat this all by saying that, erm, ‘strong popular themes’ do exist in the various genres and it seems that a writer can boost their likelihood of being published by taking a note of these themes and writing to conform. Whether this makes them rules not, well…

  4. Ian, have you actually read the article? it’s a series of overused tropes and techniques that the writer would like to see less of, and is calling ‘rules’ in a sense of hyperbole, as if it may as well be a rule, they show up so often.

    • Yes, I read it. My point is that they’re not even “over-used tropes or techniques”. It’s a list of random pronouncements you see now and again on the internet – some of which are complete rubbish, some are common sense, and some are just plain bad advice. It’s meaningless.

  5. I think Elaine is right, I remember reading this article, and being incensed, and then realizing that it was arguing these are rules to be BROKEN, not followed. Then my incense was left without an object, just kinda floating around me stinking the place up. Not good.

    Anyways, though I’m pleased to see we’re in agreement about present tense, I have to take issue with you here:

    # Writing unsympathetic characters –
    # especially in epic fantasy – means
    # you end up with rapey grimdark shit,

    No, Blakes 7 had some great ‘unsympathetic characters’ (the misanthrope and the coward) and yet was never ‘rapey’ that I recall.

    Also it’s quite possible to have sympathetic protagonists and still have them in a ‘grimdark rapey’ environment. There’s usually a villain or villains who can provide the ‘rapey’, it’s not a question of whether your protag is ‘sympathetic’ or not.

    I don’t read much fantasy, so I can’t pass judgement on this kind of stuff, but I don’t think the nature of the characters is the cause of the overall tone of the fiction. The characters might be made unsympathetic to fit that tone, but they can be unsymapthetic without the story having any rape elements, and a world can be ‘grimdark’ without such elements too.


    • It’s not that the “rules” should be broken or not. It’s that they’re not even “rules” in the first place. And yes, some of them are actually good advice – so breaking them would be dumb.

      The only real rule for writing is: does it work for you?

      And if it doesn’t work for your beta readers, that doesn’t mean you need to change it. You are the final arbiter on what you write. OTOH, you might agree with what others say about your writing, and feel a change is justified.

  6. Rules and tropes are what has kept SF in its own self-contained ghetto for so long…and why it is not taken seriously as a LITERARY genre by many critics and commentators. In order to escape a box, one has to learn to think outside it and come up with new and daring and innovative approaches–can’t think of many SF scribblers who manage that (and typical SF readers likely wouldn’t appreciate the final result if they did). There are always signs of hope, a few authors who go against the grain and accomplish truly unique work, but they are in the minority and, I fear, always will be.

    And, increasingly, these authors are being published by smaller presses or, in the best tradition of independent minded folk, going the DIY route. More power to ’em…

    • Lit-fic has its own set of ‘rules’. Literary critics are influenced by the current hot trend. Try writing some post-modernistic metafiction and see how far that gets you. Answer: it depends on whether it’s still the 1970s or not.

  7. As someone who’s worked both sides of that particular fence, Craig, I must say that as a scribbler I’ve never felt any constraints when concocting lit fic. However, when I do occasionally turn my hand to science fiction I’m aware of the limitations of the genre, the conservative nature of its fan base. Hell, man, these are the same people who consistently vote Asimov and various other inept Golden Agers as the best EVER.

    Great writing means conceptualizing outside the box, resisting formula, the low expectations of dull-witted fan-dumb. Many SF readers are coming to the genre through media franchises and video games and their aesthetic sensibilities are, not surprisingly, superficial and, often, overtly militaristic.

    Lit fic has its weaknesses and deficiencies, to be sure, but parochialism, at least in my experience, isn’t one of them.

    • I also write both, pretty much evenly split, though I sometimes like to pull up that fence and write in the gap that’s left behind. 🙂

      OK, I’d actually say my heart ultimately lies more with genre writing than literary, however I’ve currently had more literary work published so go figure.

      The problem with your list of criticisms of the SF world–resisting formula, low expectations of dull-witted fan-dumb–is that it matches my criticism of the literary world. You only have to google a phrase like ‘literary trends 2013’ to see a buzz of writers trying to work out what they need to start emulating next. But please don’t take my opinion as some kind of 100% endorsement of the SF world. I read plenty of Asimov when I was younger and I also cringe when I see it voted best fiction (or best SF fiction) ever.

      Chabon had some great things to say about the literary/genre divide. Ultimately it’s an artificial divide which has been blurring for a long time. A lot of people are terrified of that, on both sides, but I say bring it on.

  8. Standalone fantasy: Guy Gavriel Kay. I hope you’ve read The Lions of Al-Rassan, Ian?

    Women can’t write hard SF: I’d turn that around and say too many men can’t write hard SF. How often is it dull, dull, dull, with no emotional intensity? I’m not a computer, I need to care about a novel’s characters.


    • I’m pretty sure I’ve read Tigana, but I’m not a big fan of epic fantasy. I didn’t doubt stand-alones existed, I just couldn’t think of any when I was writing the post.

      There is some very good hard sf out there – from Paul McAuley to Chris Moriarty. There’s crap in every subgenre of sf and fantasy…

      • Read The Lions of Al-Rassan, Ian. Really. It’s not epic fantasy, it’s a thought provoking and poetic exploration of politics and religion and love and life. Far, far better than Tigana.

        In terms of hard SF, I recommend Starfish and Blindsight by Peter Watts if you haven’t read them. Watts is one of the few (IMO) who fully realises ideas and scientific rigour and stimulating character.


        • Given the number of books on the TBR, it’s unlikely I’d ever get to reading any more Kay, but you never know. I’ve read Blindsight and didn’t like it as much as I, or people who know me, expected to. Not sure why.

  9. Reading through the comments, several things come to mind…

    1) Science fiction (at least some of it) comes up with new ideas and new issues. Until these become accepted in the genre, it is difficult to add literary stylism to the writing… people will and do take things the wrong way…

    2) I have written a hard science fiction novel and asked quite a few agents whether they’d be interested in representing the book. So far nothing. In case you say my writing might be lacking, it got me a distinction for my novel section on my MA Creative Writing course at Bath Spa – one of the top 5 such writing courses in the country – so we can rule that out as a possible reason… and before you ask… one of my tutors described it as literary science fiction, which made my jaw drop because it is oozing with new ideas.

    3) I can well believe that because it is an accepted belief that women can’t write hard science fiction, then they will be difficult to sell to the public by the publishing industry. In addition this widely accepted belief may put women off writing hard science fiction. What I call a detrimental feedback loop… the kind of loop that is reinforced by articles like that of io9 reminding us about it.

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